“How Music Works” According to David Byrne
Winding down from a few months of touring and teaching in multiple states, my friend Christian Biegai, a film composer and saxophonist based in Berlin, came to visit me while on a trip in the US. When we get together, which isn’t often enough these days, we tend to talk music. This trip being less than 24 hours before he headed out towards his next destination we got down to business immediately. As we shot out from Reagan Airport he mentioned David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” and that I should read it as soon as possible. Following his visit I picked up Mr. Byrne’s latest hardcopy creation.
What has been particularly refreshing about this book is Byrne’s ability to examine music from a multitude of angles: historical, technological, sociological, theoretical AND he managed to keep me engaged. (So much so in fact, that I’ve had a couple of sleepy days due to late night reading/re-reading of this book.) The overarching theme that I was able to take away from his writing was the importance he places on creativity and the production of artistic projects. That is to say: if you aren’t making something, then what are you doing? Good question!
Along with this observation, Byrne’s exploration of the recording industry and his candid accounts as to how it has morphed during his career from his work with the Talking Heads to his current solo recording projects was particularly interesting to me as I’m in the midst of recording this summer and into the winter. There are so many different approaches now available to artists regarding how they share their work both live and recorded with the public. Byrne is able to clearly express his research and insights on the advantages/disadvantages to various approaches or combinations of these methods. The discussion confirmed a notion that I’ve held for some time: recordings have become less of a means for generating revenue for artists/labels (though is still possible as shown by Byrne and many other artists), and are now about documenting a moment sonically to share with others. Wasn’t this the objective when this all started? More to the point, Byrne depicts a distribution landscape that allows for greater flexibility in terms of how an artist can generate recorded performances and share them with listeners.
I’ve been talking about this book currently with other artists during my residency here at the Performing Arts Institute in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (Exotic location? No. Eclectic character? Yes). My colleague, flautist and chamber music guru, Chris Vaneman had this to say:
“The thing I enjoyed most in this (terrific!) book is Byrne’s exploration of the nature of creativity, which gets a chapter of its own early on and which is glanced at repeatedly over the course of the book. After all, David Byrne is famously nothing-if-not-creative: an art school graduate, a filmmaker, a writer, a designer, a wearer of Big Suits, a synthesizer of at least a few musical subgenres. Yet he makes a convincing case that creativity isn’t the product of some mysterious, daemonic inspiration visited on a privileged few but something simpler and accessible to us all — that it comes about as individuals find communities that allow them to trade ideas freely (CBGB’s in 1975, just for example) and as they work to channel their ideas into artistic forms that are dictated in large part by social and economic factors (the short pop song, but also the da capo aria, just for a couple more.) Byrne reminded me that creating is something my friends and I can do. And that’s pretty damn cool.”